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Chasing Immortality

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Why do runners raid a remote Rockies town to stare death in the face? Because it might bring a glimpse of heaven. This is The North Face Canadian Death Race.

Photo by David Clifford

An anonymous source—likely a philosopher, punk rocker or Buddhist monk—said, “One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.” And, while over 1000 brave trail runners may not know the quote verbatim, they acknowledge its spirit every summer.

They arrive in Grand Cache, in west-central Alberta, Canada—a hardscrabble, defunct mining outpost 120 miles from the nearest airport—with skull stickers decorating their bumpers and their eyes focused squarely on finishing one of the continent’s toughest yet decidedly underestimated trail races, the 125-kilometer Canadian Death Race.

You could say every runner here has a Death Wish.

The jokes and wordplays surrounding death flow like the frigid waters of the nearby Smoky River. “It’s a killer” is the race’s own tagline, appearing on everything from flags waving above town to temporary tattoos on kids’ cheeks. There’s even a weekend-long “Death Fest” with live music and games—and a children’s Death Race 5K. But, festivities and marketing malarkey aside, this race is no laughing matter.

Run almost entirely on trails, The Canadian Death Race summits three mountains above Grande Cache (elev. 4199 feet). It climbs over 11,000 feet and peaks atop 6986-foot Mount Hamel two-thirds of the way into the race. And that tells only part of the story—the course’s footing varies from a few smooth dirt roads to primarily primitive singletrack across bogs, over downed trees and through overgrown flora. This course keeps runners off balance and challenges their fitness, spirit and souls.

Says Diane Van Deren of Sedalia, Colorado, who won the 2008 race with a time of 17:16:22, “The Death Race will make you hurt in places you have never hurt before.” She says the downhills battered her quads and she was impaled by countless tree branches and briars (memo to Death Racers: wear eye protection, especially in the dark). Van Deren also fell numerous times in the early bog section of the course and suffered an unusual malady. “I ended up with an allergic reaction to a bug bite,” she says. “Hives developed up and down my arms and legs.”

And Van Deren is no powder puff. She won the 2007 Trail Runner Trophy Series and has completed some of the world’s most difficult ultramarathons, including the Hardrock 100 four times.

Two days before the 2008 Death Race, Sakura Hozumi, co-Race Director, talks about a runner here from Japan, Hiroko Suzuki. “I told her, `There’s no hand-holding here and this is not tourism.’ I told her the only Japanese I’d speak is if I called her mom because she died.”

Meet Your Maker

The night before the race, a blonde-haired man in his mid-40s, with the energy of a teenager, looks up from the street around the Death Race starting area. There’s orange neon spray-paint on his chin and cheek—overspray from the graffiti he’s littering on the pavement: smack like “Your mama runs faster!” and “You run 125K. Therefore you smell bad.”

This is Dale Tuck and the Canadian Death Race is his bastard child.

A few hours later, Tuck is incognito, standing on a sprawling outdoor stage, addressing almost 2000 people in the pre-race briefing. He’s dressed in a flowing black robe and baggy black pants. He wears a horned mask that is a gruesome cross-pollination of Darth Vader, Felix the Cat and Satan himself. A burgundy wig waves in the cold wind and clouds the color of vampire blood roll in. Runners fold their arms, shivering nervously in their down parkas, glancing at their watches to calculate the hours until the starter’s pistol.

Busted

Death begins with birth and the Canadian Death Race was born to bring Grande Cache, a town of only 3700, back from the grave.

Grande Cache was founded in the mid-1960s as a coal-mining settlement. Like many towns that put all their eggs in the mining cart, it’s fallen victim to boom-and-bust cycles, despite the local prison and forestry employing many others.

When Tuck, an endurance sports junkie, moved to Grande Cache in 1993, he felt immediately that he’d found a beautiful slice of hell, begging to be run, hiked, climbed, snowshoed and mountain biked. “Just look around,” he says, swinging his arm like Vanna White presenting a string of vowels, “It’s a place that says, `Race me!'”

The Grande Cache bust came by 2000, when the mine had closed and the prison had been “downsized” from medium- to minimum-security. The mine closing equated to 500 lost jobs. As an additional thunderclap in this perfect storm, endangerment of the Northern Spotted Owl became a huge topic, putting the future of the local mill and logging in jeopardy.

“It was all a major catastrophe,” says Tuck, who still works at the prison. “We had close to 800 jobs walk out the door.” He hesitates and looks at the Death Race banner waving overhead. “But it was an opportunity, too.”

Up to that point, Tuck says Grande Cache was “happy and set in its ways.” So his idea of hosting a 125K race over three mountains summits was met with ridicule. “It was inconceivable—there was amazing resistance to organizing something that nobody would come to,” he says. “Oh, and here was the kicker—we announced that we’d call it `The Death Race.'”

But Tuck, as charismatic as he is eccentric, persisted and built a consensus. The race took off. “Two hundred people became 500 became 700, and we soon had a cap of 1000 because the infrastructure can’t handle any more,” he says. On race weekend, hotels are filled to capacity, and people sleep shoulder-to-shoulder at campsites. RVs line the pull-offs leading into town. Judged by sheer participation, the Death Race is the continent’s biggest pure trail race.

Faces of Death

After a shivering night that dropped near freezing, Saturday at 8 a.m. the music of bagpipes announced the start of the 2008 Death Race. Sprightly, smiling runners practically skipped down the sloped streets leaving town. Grand Cache occupies a plateau, propped up in the center of a geological cereal bowl, with mountain peaks forming the rim all around. From the starting line, runners can trace the jagged distant rim of the bowl—before they’re done, they will have encircled over three quarters of it.

The first few hundred meters were the easiest strides all day, and the raucous cheering from spectators mixed with the melodic jingle of bear bells strapped to runners’ packs. Yet the party was short lived. Beginning on the town’s outskirts, runners tackled the first of the race’s five beastly legs. The Death Race is a pick-your-poison event, and each course segment offers its own toxic mix.

The first segment, called “Downtown Jaunt,” plugs promptly into swampy wilderness. The trail here undulates through sections of shoe-sucking mud and creek crossings before it arrives at two mountain lakes. The humid air was oppressive and many runners opted for rain ponchos or shells. Occasionally, there was the vague stench of something else—a bear? With a net elevation loss of 500 feet, this 19K leg would be one of the day’s easiest and shortest (tied with Segment Three), yet many arrived at the transition point bearing the weight of sweat and mud on their heads, legs and shoes.

Bitter Surrender

The mellow nature of Segment One seemed to lull Death Racers into false confidence as many gamboled happily into Segment Two, called “Flood and Grande Mountain Slugfest”. Here, the Death Race hits runners’ lungs and legs with the shrill of a hotel alarm clock. Leaving a verdant valley, runners began the ascent of the first of back-to-back peaks, grinding to the top of 6085-foot Flood Mountain —a route littered with bear, elk and cougar prints.

From Flood’s summit, the overwhelming view prompted some to stop and snap photos. The elation was temporary, though. The ensuing descent is so steep that runners flailed for trees just to slow down. What’s more, this is not a trail per se— it’s as if Tuck stood atop Flood Mountain and pushed off a keg of beer, and wherever it went would decide the course.

“It was the most brutal terrain I’ve ever had to run through—you’re either going straight up or straight down,” says Andrew Anglemyer, a Bay Area resident who eventually placed 11th. “At some points I found it better sliding down on my butt than trying to hold onto a tree or rock.”

After crashing down 1800 feet, runners began the second major climb of this segment, back up 2000 feet to the summit of Grande Mountain. In this deep cleavage between two steeply sloped mountains, surrounded by thick forest, a sense of complete isolation dominated and all was silent save for heavy breathing and the jingle of bear bells. For some, isolation equaled elation. For others, it was a claustrophobic moss garden.

The descent off Grande Mountain pulverized both the quadriceps and ankles during the 3000-foot plunge to Grande Cache. The slope offers rocks of all sizes—from ball bearings to doll heads to grapefruits to bowling balls—and it became a chorus of grunts and cuss words as everyone struggled downward.

After the hell of Segment Two, runners passed through Grand Cache, where screaming spectators acted as a slingshot, rejuvenating runners’ spirits and sending them buoyantly back out to the course. But Grande Cache also became a siren’s song that made it too easy to toss in the towel.

Ryan Hannah, a well-built member of the Canadian Armed Forces, surrendered here. In this, his first Death Race, he admits to being caught off-guard. “The views from the top of Grande Mountain were great until I realized I had to run down,” said the 31-year-old from Shiloh, Manitoba, while sitting in a lawn chair, his pruned bare feet propped up. “My knees just went numb.”

Easy Prey

The 19-kilometer Segment Three, called “Old Mine Road,” is widely regarded as the easiest, and rookie Death Racers get the false sense that they are over the hump. “Smooth sailing from here!” shouted one racer to her crew as she gave a thumbs-up.

A gentle downhill and rolling dirt road equates to a net loss of 1000 feet. Road speedsters crave this section, and many of this year’s racers clicked off mileage like caffeinated jaguars. Death Racers are encouraged to stay on their guard for wildlife all over the course, but especially here. Big, hungry and ornery local wildlife include cougars, wolverines, elk, moose, mountain goats, wolves, bighorn sheep, caribou and, most notably, grizzly bears.

While cruising the Old Mine Road, Brian Hyland from Canmore, Alberta, encountered a grizzly. “It was a good-sized one,” he says. “I backed up, waited for other runners, and we made a lot of noise while walking through there together.”

Death from Above

Segment Four looms like a dentist’s appointment. This is the “Hamel Assault,” and “It’s here that things go wrong,” reads one course summary.

Tracy Garneau, a 39-year-old runner from Vernon, British Columbia, and three-time runner-up at the Death Race, admits a love-hate relationship with Mount Hamel. “Hamel’s like a boyfriend,” she says. “I’ve climbed it 22 times, and every time I pray, because he can bring you to your knees.”

Hamel rises from the restful shores of a duck pond, and Death Racers leaving this aid station shifted gears almost immediately to a modest power hike, pointing their heads down and preparing to pump up 3000 vertical feet.

At the top, the views varied according to the weather. Some runners basked in sunlight, and stared straight down into Hell’s Canyon, a dark corridor through which the Smoky River roars. Others reached the summit as one of many cloud banks roiled through, and visibility was limited to less than 10 feet. Regardless, many lingered only a few seconds before pointing their bludgeoned toenails downhill, beginning what is cursed as an “eternal” (13 miles) downhill.

Nail In the Coffin

The Hamel Segment batters runners, and many arrive at the next station, Beaver Dam, intent on dropping out. But they’re missing out if they do. “Leg Five is stacked,” says Turk.

Called “Hell’s Gate and River Crossing,” this segment sends runners through an enchanted forest speckled with red paintbrush, prickly wild rose and calypso orchid. The footing is off-camber and concealed by overgrowth for several miles, making this a deceptively difficult task, given that nearly all runners cover it in the dark, staring into the tunnel of light cast by their headlamps.

Eventually, the already-skinny trail reaches an even narrower stretch, smack through a long cleave in a massive boulder. Here is Split Rock. Some (ahem) “larger” runners need to inhale deeply and turn sideways in order to slip through. Most everybody still scraped their shoulders against both sides of the runway.

After Split Rock, the course dives downward to Hell’s Gate, what is fast becoming a renowned landmark. The trail vanishes into the deafening confluence of the Smoky and Sulphur rivers. Icy blue and jade-green waters swirl. The air temperature plummets.

A boat dock and a robed Grim Reaper—a nod to the Greek myth of Charon, who ushers souls of the dead across the River Styx into the Underworld—awaited here, and runners dug into their packs to fetch a coin given to them before the race. This is their ticket across, gaining them admission to a raft. Woe to the runner who drops the coin on the course, for their race is over.

Tonight, nobody dropped their token. Still, says Nicki Haugan, 30, a past solo Death Race winner from Fort Saint John, British Columbia, “You’ll see runners heading back on the trail, sometimes in tears, looking for their coin.”

Across the river, the course climbs over 1000 feet to the Sulphur Rim Trail, a cliffhanger that skirts the edge of a canyon on its way back to town and the finish. It’s a final dagger stab and catches many by surprise. Says Garneau, “When I climb up there, I’m thinking, `Aw, shit, what was I thinking?'”

Last Rites

The final miles of most trail ultras involve an emotional journey, and the 2008 Death Race was no exception, as so many runners pushed their limits throughout the day and night, breaking down, physically and mentally. Wendy Taks, who ran this leg as a relay team member, recalls passing several struggling solo runners on the Sulphur Rim Trail: “I saw one girl vomiting and another guy was stumbling back and forth … I was scared he would fall off the cliff.”

Yet, somehow, nearly half of solo Death Racers (47 percent) ran, shuffled or limped, across the hallowed finish line in downtown Grande Cache.

There was 41-year-old Jack Cook, who was the first solo Death Racer to get here— his third title. Cook, from Edmonton, passed fellow World 100K Championships teammate Darin Bentley on the final leg, and at the finish collapsed to his knees. Then there was Duncan Cairns, 39, of Calgary, the last finisher of the 2008 race, albeit after the 24-hour cut-off. Asked to recall his best memory from the race, Cairns replied, “Standing here.”

Fast or slow, official or unofficial, a Death Race finish is cause to celebrate. Post race, the beer poured freely at Rockies Bar & Grill, the victory party host. Several other racers toasted Molsons at the campground. Near and far, runners reveled in their defiance. They defied the mountains. They defied their inner demons. And, in some ways, they defied Death—until they sign up to do it all again next year.

Garett Graubins is former Senior Editor of Trail Runner.